In the arts we appreciate both form and content. What you do is just as important as how you do it. Sometimes your style will even say more than what the substance is saying. Appreciation of this duality is as old as ancient antiquity. Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) elaborately discussed form and content in Rhetoric and in Poetics. And so when President Uhuru Kenyatta is giving his State of the Nation Address on Kenya’s 53rd Jamhuri Day, I cannot help drifting into both the form and content of his message.
His body gestures and movements, the cadence, timbre and nuanced inflections in his voice (especially the non conscious ones), the succession of facial expressions, the involuntary activities that the fingers do, the fumbling with the sheaf of papers that are his official address, as he ad libs – all these and many more little gradations of performance – are just as important as what he is labouring to say. And both the substance and style on this occasion speak to a troubled mind.
My president speaks with the urgency and ire of the aggrieved. Jamhuri should be a happy day. We are marking the most important happening in our togetherness as an independent people, a nation. Our self-determination began on this day, 53 years ago. It is time for national stocktaking; acknowledging our gains and loses as a people and producing our national balance sheet. In the process, we also expect to examine the promissory notes that those who were in charge 53 years ago set aside for the future generations.
Happily for President Kenyatta, he is the second member of his family to lead the nation in this very useful exercise. Between him and his late father, they have led 19 of our 53 celebrations. Perhaps no other father and son will achieve this feat anytime soon. Unless one of the Moi progeny ascends to power. You understand why I expect the President to be happy. But he is not. Even when he rolls out his catalogue of successes – real and perceived – he is still not happy. The triumphal cadence is missing, the victorious facial expression absent.
The celebratory text has the sound of an elegy, a typical poetic lament for the dead. There is a salvo at some detractor here and another one there – people who cannot see the good that this government is doing. Apparently some are planning to bring in foreign money, to mess with the forthcoming general elections. Scheming with foreigners does not end there. There are people – maybe even the same ones – planning to bring back the matter of the International Criminal Court (ICC), from which six Kenyans escaped by whiskers.
Now Kenya intends to pull out of this court, the President says. And he says many other low-spirited things on this day of high celebration. We all go home unhappy. Sad. Some are sad because others don’t see anything good in what our good government is doing. Others are unhappy because they don’t like what the President has said. There are no winners. We are all losers on the greatest day in our national calendar.
The detached critic of art has difficulty finding the context in which the address is hinged, except the context of unhappiness. And yet am I not getting used to the reality that is President Kenyatta and the Habit of Unhappiness? President Kenyatta and the Habit of Unhappiness? With fitting apologies to departed Cameroonian novelist Mongo Beti, this would be a good title for some book in future. But I digress. Back to my thing, what is making my President so unhappy? What is rattling him?
I am worried because my President is worried. And I share in some of his worries. He has told us that some people are planning violence in next year’s polls. So it is not enough that foregners are “pouring in money” to influence the outcome of the elections? Now someone wants us to fight, too. And yet there will be no ICC to restrain us? So it will be a free for all? Well, this is true self-determination.
Yet, maybe, all this could just be made up stuff? High level scaremongering? You see, there has been far too much talk about corruption. Corruption, corruption, corruption! Every morning I wake up to new narratives of corruption in government. It is as if the thing just thrives on its energy. And I have never seen anyone punished. Now someone has ranked Kenya the third most corrupt country in the world. But I don’t believe him. They must have rigged us out of our number one position. After all the President is telling us that they even plan to rig our elections next year.
But the President has also told us, “We will not accept this.” We will not accept foreigners to rig our elections. So what, exactly, will we do? How exactly will we reject? Does it mean that we will reject the rigged election results? But who are “we,” we who will reject the rigging of our thing? Will “we” reject the same way some people rejected in 2007? This whole thing is confusing. Refusing foreign induced election processes and outcomes, people planning violence, Kenya pulling out of the ICC – it is all confusing.
It is however not just confusing. It is frightening. For in this style and substance, I read panic – I should have used a more politically correct idiom, but I cannot find one. Is there panic in the House of Jubilee? Could they have run out of election campaign agenda? Could all this talk of corruption be messing up their development campaign agenda soup with bad flies?
The test of national unity, in my estimation, failed flat – long ago. There is no redemption here. The test of economic development is going south. They spoke of Uwazi (openness), Umoja (Unity) and Uchumi (Economy). None of these seems able to stand on its feet. Maybe the best thing is to try what has been tested and proven before? ICC and railing at foreigners worked, last time. Maybe it is time to play that card again?